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ENVIRONMENT REPORT - July 20, 2001: Test for World War One Poisons - 2001-07-19

This is the VOA Special English Environment Report.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers recently began intensive testing for harmful chemical substances buried in Washington, D.C. The engineers are examining soil taken from one-thousand-six-hundred properties. The area is in the northwest part of the city around American University.

Dangerous levels of the poison arsenic were found there earlier. They were discovered at an American University child care center and sports field. Abnormal levels of arsenic also were discovered near homes around the university. Scientists say this poison can cause cancer. Health officials are studying reports of sickness in the area.

The presence of arsenic may result from old chemical weapons experiments performed at the university. The government says chemical weapons were tested there more than eighty years ago. The tests took place between Nineteen-Fourteen and Nineteen-Eighteen, during World War One. The weapons tested included mustard gas. At the time, there was little developed land near the university.

The Army Corps of Engineers first worked to clear buried weapons from the area in Nineteen-Ninety-Three. At that time, digging near the university uncovered explosives. In Nineteen-Ninety-Five, the engineers said they had completed the work. But more buried weapons were found several years later. They were uncovered under property belonging to the South Korean ambassador.

Washington, D-C health officials have examined children at the day care center for the presence of arsenic. They also tested some American University students and employees. The results showed no abnormal levels of the poison. Health officials also studied reports of cancer in the area. Their report said the rate of cancer was not higher than in a nearby area.

But a committee of scientists currently is advising that more people living in the area be examined. The tests would measure their hair for the presence of arsenic.

A United States House of Representatives sub-committee is planning hearings about the buried chemicals later this month. The group is investigating reports that the Army Corps of Engineers and another agency knew about the weapons seven years before they were discovered.

This VOA Special English Environment Report was written by Jerilyn Watson.